One of Carowinds’ 14 roller coasters reaches a major milestone this year! Afterburn, widely regarded by coaster enthusiasts as one of the best inverted coasters in existence, is celebrating its 20th birthday in 2019.
When the inverted coaster originally opened in 1999, did you know it had a different name? When Carowinds was owned by Paramount, the coaster took its theme from the 1986’s Top Gun and was given the moniker Top Gun: The Jet Coaster. It was the fourth coaster to receive “Top Gun” theming, following installations at Paramount’s (now California’s) Great America in 1993, Kings Island in 1993 and Canada’s Wonderland in 1995.
Despite considering several other themes while conceptualizing and designing the new roller coaster, Top Gun fit the coaster perfectly, according to Steve Jackson, director of maintenance and construction for Carowinds.
“When looking at it as a roller coaster, it had all of the aircraft moves in it, and it did them perfectly,” he said. “It’s got all of the forces naturally that you’d feel in an F-14. It made sense to do it that way. It drives the theming and overall experience of the attraction.”
Top Gun: The Jet Coaster was considered the biggest investment in park history.
“We expect it to become our park’s signature attraction,” then-General Manager of Carowinds Watt Burris said to the Charlotte Observer in 1998. “Top Gun will give us a state-of-the-art inverted coaster that compares with any in the country.”
According to Jerry Helms, Carowinds’ long time Vice President of Operations, Burris had grand plans for the coaster in concept.
“Watt had this vision,” Helms said. “He said, ‘We’re going to tell Walter [Bolliger] that he can build this ride, but we’re not going to cut down any trees. He has to work through them’.
“We wanted to maximize the height in the field of vision. We located the coaster at the highest point of elevation in the park, on the hill. We turned the hundred-plus feet into a lot more, and leaving the trees in gave an amazing sensation.”
The location of Afterburn also helped Carowinds “show off” to visitors traveling south on I-77.
“A lot of people come down I-77 South and from way up the road, you can see the park,” Helms continued. “What it did was give definition to Carowinds. On one side, we had the Drop Tower. That defined that side of the park. Then we had the Skytower in the middle, and in the distance, you could see Top Gun. People could see that Carowinds was growing.”
But what about the overall ride experience? I feel that the March 19, 1999 description from the Charlotte Observer‘s Dean Smith is the best way to describe it.
Up you go, cresting at 113 feet, then hesitating ominously as the train eases over… then leans right… then DOWN, DOWN, DOWN toward the parking lot below before whipping out of that drop and on to six inversions.
When you hit the vertical loop, you lose sight of all machinery and get your first sense of free flight. Then a diving loop called an Immelman gets your ears spinning in the other direction before a Zero-G Roll spins the train in a corkscrew in one smooth motion.
Then you hit a Batwing, two loops angled at 45 degrees with a plunge underground in between. In the tunnel, you hit a blinding mist before sliding into a 360-degree Flat Spin and a final dizzying spiral.
According to Jackson, Afterburn was a roller coaster that put Carowinds “on the map.”
“Our attendance jumped significantly after Top Gun opened,” he said. “Usually when you get a new coaster, there’s an attendance bump, and it goes back down, but we opened the coaster, saw the bump, and kept it. It was the ‘We’re here we’re here to stay. Buy your season pass, and let’s go.’ moment.”
When Cedar Fair purchased the Paramount Parks, nearly all of the Paramount-themed attraction branding had to be changed. While many of the other Top Gun-themed coasters were renamed to Flight Deck, Carowinds’ version was renamed Afterburn in 2007.
But where is the best seat on the Afterburn?
Helms prefers the front, while Jackson split his answer depending on time of day.
“If I had my druthers, I’d ride in the front during the day,” he said. “You can see so much more in front. At night, when there’s not as much to see, I’ll ride in the middle or the back of the train.”
Regardless of seat location, Smith had one piece of advice that still holds true 20 years later: “Don’t close your eyes. You’ll know when to scream.”
Afterburn is still a fan favorite at Carowinds, giving rides to more than 750,000 riders during 2018. To Jackson, it’s special to have a roller coaster that is still so popular, even after 20 years of operation.
“It gives you bragging rights!” he said with a laugh. “It is the best invert. They got that one 100% right!”
This post first appeared on Coaster 101.